Wednesday Reading List: Scandal, Philanthropy, and Bad Tax Ideas

Eliza Shapiro of Politico has been covering the ongoing saga of Families for Excellent Schools. Here's the latest:

The charter school advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools is set to close at least part of its 40-person operation following the firing of its CEO, Jeremiah Kittredge, POLITICO has learned from multiple sources with knowledge of the situation. Kittredge was removed last week after an investigation into sexual harassment against a non-employee at a recent conference.

In response to this news, I have heard mostly schadenfreude. Despite outsized news coverage and philanthropic support - due to their affiliation with Success Academy - Families for Excellent Schools struggled to have impact in the last several years, while continuing to draw millions of dollars in private funding. While there are some extraordinary extenuating circumstances in this story, I hope that the power players in philanthropy reflect on this episode and internalize the perils of concentrating too much advocacy power in one locus.

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Speaking of philanthropy, Matt Barnum of Chalkbeat looks at the new strategy of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation:

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has a new plan intended to help public schools: improve the materials that teachers use to teach. It’s part of a revamped strategy for the philanthropy, which has become one of the most influential forces in American education over the last two decades ... Much of that work has been divisive: Gates was a key player in the push for the Common Core standards and teacher evaluations tied to student test scores. By comparison, focusing on curriculum seems like a less controversial tack. But if history tells us anything about philanthropists’ role in pushing educational changes, it’s that these efforts prove more challenging than initially thought.

That last point is critical, as even the appearance of Gates-ian influence over an educational endeavor can cause an immediate adverse reaction. The important thing to remember about schools is that local control is the coin of the realm. Despite decades of state intervention and federal activity on accountability, the decisions over what gets taught and when are made at the school or district level, if not left to the aegis of individual classroom educators.

The biggest institutional philanthropy in the world thinks this is going to go down without pushback?

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Snark aside, we should totally have a more standardized approach to curriculum and instruction in this country. The radical decentralization of curriculum in America comes at an enormous detriment to both equity and excellence. The principle behind the Gates investment is sound, it's just that the execution and messaging are going to require threading a billion needles.

Finally today, Clint Smith is in The Atlantic, looking at how new ripples in the tax code might affect education policy:

Under the Republican plan passed through Congress last December, families can now use 529 college-savings plans to pay for private K-12 schooling, allowing them up to $10,000 in tax-free withdrawals per child annually. This new provision effectively operates the same way a voucher program would, but without the name: While vouchers distribute funds directly to parents to pay for private school, the new law uses the tax code to facilitate private-school attendance. This change in tax law will largely benefit the rich, providing families that are aware and take advantage of 529 plans—families that are predominantly wealthy and can likely already afford private education—with a $10,000 tax deduction. This deduction also creates an incentive for parents to take their children out of public schools and put them in private ones.

The last thing we need is another incentive for wealthy families to hoard their privilege away from public systems, and that's exactly what the new tax code does. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the unpopularity of vouchers has led to a significant rebranding effort, wherein policymakers are deploying new nomenclature around old, bad ideas. Creating incentives for wealthy people to avoid public schooling is pretty much the worst.

Have a great day!